Space Bitches, Witches, and Kick-Ass Princesses: Star Wars and Popular Feminism

Regular readers may remember my call for testimonials from other Star Wars fans, in which I asked ‘is Star Wars a boys’ club?’. The result of this research is now available as ‘Space Bitches, Witches, and Kick-Ass Princesses: Star Wars and Popular Feminism’, a chapter in a new edited collection.

You can read the chapter in full at this link, where it is available courtesy of the Utrecht University Open Access fund.

Read an excerpt of the chapter below:

Over the past few years, the Star Wars franchise has been widely praised for its feminism—especially since its acquisition by Disney in 2012. New heroes like Jyn Erso and Rey are hailed as feminist triumphs not just for Star Wars, but for mainstream entertainment more broadly. New characters aimed at a new generation of fans, like Rebels’s pink-clad fighter-cum-artist, Sabine Wren, and new novels devoted to existing characters like Leia Organa and Ahsoka Tano (from the animated series The Clone Wars),[1]are often cited by mainstream news outlets as part of a growing commitment to female characters, and to feminism by association. Likewise, thanks partly to its alliance with Disney’s princess powerhouse, the marketing force of Star Wars can now be felt as strongly in female-targeted sectors (make-up, fashion, dolls) as it is outside of them.[2]Does all of this mean, as one reviewer put it, that starting with The Force Awakens, Star Wars “finally awakens to a feminist world”?[3]Such assertions have certainly rubbed some long-time fans the wrong way—after all, women have made up a significant and vocal portion of the Star Wars fanbase from the beginning.[4]Moreover, one source’s assessment of what constitutes a “feminist world” (and of who is responsible for building it) is often fundamentally different from another’s.

As one fan commented, “I’m sure that people went ‘Wow!’ when they saw the first female Jedi in the prequels. The fanfic of the 1970s had women Jedi all the time and women smugglers. Nothing new there for the older fans.”[5]Will Brooker has also argued that the original female fans made the franchise their own through grassroots community-building, crafting, and fanfiction.[6]In other words, their fandom is built on free engagement with the storyworld, and many do not feel a strong need to be validated or greeted as consumers of licensed merchandise.[7]Fan activity, of course, is not an official part of the franchise, and the kinds of stories that are sanctioned as canonical can certainly have a significant impact on a storyworld’s feminist potential. While Leia’s example is a powerful one, and although there are certainly more female role models in the franchise now than there were in 1977, can we call these official Star Wars products—the films, the franchise itself—feminist?

Design © 2016 by Hayley Gilmore.

Broadly speaking, feminists believe in and advocate social and political gender equality, but as Mary Hawkesworth points out, feminism is “a collective noun,” with many interpretations and aims.[8]As this statement indicates, what it means to experience Star Wars as a female fan, and what it means for Star Wars to be feminist, are questions too big for this chapter. The topic of Star Wars and feminist discourse could fill volumes—and indeed, several academic journals and books have already devoted attention to the subject. Rather than trying to condense a rich discussion of feminism in Star Wars into just a handful of pages, then, I offer a few examples from very different corners of the Star Wars storyworld. They illustrate some of the diverse “interpretations and aims” of feminist discourse that are created by the complex interplay between fans and the multi-authored, media-industrial franchise that is Star Wars. First I will look at discourses of feminism and the representation of women in Star Wars, paying special attention to the stories outside of the films. Then I will explore the way the storyworld’s non-narrative paratexts—toys, clothes, and merchandising—impact its engagement with feminist discourse. Finally, I will look at some of the ways in which fans and storytellers have politicized Star Wars, and what this may tell us about the future of the franchise. These examples will also provide a brief but informative glimpse at the history of Star Wars’s engagement with feminist discourse, and the wealth of material still to be explored. One thing is certain: Star Wars is not just for boys, nor has it ever been. But the question of whether Star Wars is feminist has been controversial throughout its forty-year history.

Read the rest of the chapter here, in the Open Access version of Star Wars and the History of Transmedia Storytelling, eds. Sean Guynes and Dan Hassler-Forest (Amsterdam: Amsterdam University Press, 2017), pp. 225-240.


[1]Claudia Gray, Bloodline (London: Random House, 2016); E. K. Johnston, Ahsoka (Glendale, CA: Disney Book Group, 2016).

[2]Lisa Richwine, “Disney’s ‘Star Wars’ Marketing Force Reaches for Female Fans,” Reuters, December 15, 2015, http://uk.reuters.com/article/us-film-starwars-women-analysis-idUKKBN0TX1J720151215.

[3]Michael Roddy, “Star Wars: The Force Finally Awakens to a Feminist World,” DNA India and Reuters, December 16, 2015, http://www.dnaindia.com/entertainment/report-star-wars-the-force-finally-awakens-to-a-feminist-world-2156317.

[4]As one famous Star Wars fanzine essay asks, “If there are men in media fandom, they’re certainly very quiet. To turn about a feminist phrase then, why is half the human race so poorly represented in Star Wars and other media fandoms?” Pat Nussman, “Where the Boys Are,” in Alderaan: The Star Wars Letterzine, vol. 15 (Toledo, OH: Kzinti Press, 1981), 2.

[5]Tish Wells, private e-mail correspondence, November 14, 2016.

[6]See Will Brooker, Using the Force: Creativity, Community and Star Wars Fans (Bloomsbury Publishing, 2002), 199–220.

[7]Jonathan Gray, Show Sold Separately: Promos, Spoilers, and Other Media Paratexts (NYU Press, 2010), 17.

[8]Mary E. Hawkesworth, Globalization and Feminist Activism (Oxford: Rowman & Littlefield, 2006), 25.

Global Media Management: Transmedia Experience (25 April 2018)

I’m currently hard at work as a Teaching Fellow in Digital Media Practice with the University of Southampton (Winchester School of Art). This means that I get to teach and organise all kinds of fabulous activities for our MA students in Global Media Management. The latest of these is has been a ‘transmedia experience’: a self-guided tour of film locations around Oxford, which formed part of the programme’s annual study visit.

The first part of the study visit involved a trip to the Oxford Story Museum. The museum creates immersive, interactive spaces designed to bring books and stories to life and to deepen engagement with the story. During students’ visit to the museum they took part in the Building Narrative Environments workshop. This workshop looks at the principles behind the museum’s approach to transmedia storytelling, and how they go about creating their spaces. Students also learned about the other ways in which the museum provide immersive experiences—for example their story session for toddlers, or their Extreme Reading Adventures project, which provides immersive experiences to re-engage reluctant or struggling readers. The Oxford Story Museum aims to take children into the world of the story, and they look at story in all its forms: oral, written, film, digital.

The second part of the study visit is the transmedia ‘tour’ of Oxford, realised in an interactive Google Map. Students used this to explore of some of Oxford’s most famous filming locations, immersing themselves in the ‘world’ of stories like The Mummy (2017), Transformers: The Last Knight (2017), and the Harry Potter franchise (2001-2011). They were also asked to add something to these storyworlds themselves, by taking photographs and video at each location and tweeting them using the #GMMTransmedia hashtag.

Featured fictional worlds included:

The Mummy (2017)

Transformers: The Last Knight (2017)

Dr Strange (2016)

X-Men: First Class (2011)

The Golden Compass (2007)

Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire (2005)

Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone (2001)

Inspector Morse (TV; 1987-2000)

 

Studying the Force: A Star Wars Symposium

Next month I’ll be speaking at a Star Wars symposium in Portsmouth, hosted by the Faculty of Creative and Cultural Industries and organised by Dr Lincoln Geraghty.

Celebrating Star Wars Day (4 May 2018) through discussion and debate, this symposium will offer us the opportunity to interrogate why the franchise has been so successful and how much it has impacted on popular culture.

Dr William Proctor (Bournemouth University) will talk about the global research project on Star Wars after Disney’s acquisition, discussing changes and shifts in the franchise seen since The Force Awakens, and then turn to consider The Last Jedi as site of struggle between
fan “tribes”.

Dr Matthew Freeman (Bath Spa University) and I will analyse the multimedia storytelling of the franchise, both historical and contemporary. Dr Freeman will discussing Splinter of the Mind’s Eye and the 1970s culture of transmedia contingency. I’ll be looking at Forces of Destiny, plastic representation, and transmedia story strategies in Disney’s Star Wars

There will be a special screening in the afternoon, introduced by staff from the School of Media and Performing Arts, followed by a Star Wars-themed quiz with prizes.

The day will begin at 9.30am in ELW 1.09, and will end at 6.00pm.

Registration is free though Eventbrite, and a full schedule of events can be found here.

Steampunk, Disability, and World Building

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The Steampunk Professor Xavier Wheelchair by Daniel Valdez.

Last week I posted about disability in the Victorian age. This week, by some brilliant stroke of coincidence, I came across the following article on Steampunk Journal:

In 2014, Mina was diagnosed with Chronic Fatigue Syndrome and Fibromyalgia. One of the significant symptoms is a weakness of the muscles which meant she required living aids to assist her with raising her son. “I went into the local mobility shops and was dismayed to see that the limited range of aids were all fashioned towards elderly people or people with little appreciation of the more alternative ways of fashion,” said Mina. “My main issue came when I was invited to a wedding. I had a great outfit but my living aids make it look so ghastly! So I had to go without and suffered, leaving the event early.” It was then that she struck on the idea of modifying them herself. She did the same thing with her wrist and knee supports.

Mina, who runs a Steampunk accessories shop on Etsy, adapted her subculture’s aesthetic to her living aids. The idea took off quickly. After seeing Mina’s own living aids, one of Mina’s customers asked if she could craft a set of steampunk ear and eye protectors, so the customer could enjoy going out to clubs with friends. ‘In the near future she’s looking to customise back braces, adult neckerchiefs, joint supports, ring pens and walking aids’, the article concludes.

© Gothianna and Steampunk Journal
© Gothianna and Steampunk Journal

In the light of last week’s post, which described Victorian attitudes towards the disabled as ‘a combination of fear, pity, discomfort and an idea of divine judgement’, it was encouraging to see that the neo-Victorian update doesn’t share these feelings in any way, shape, or form. The steampunk subculture’s love of crafting has effectively turned disability—often a marker reserved for evil or monstrous characters in popular culture—into a superpower.

It turns out that this topic (like many topics) has been on the steampunk community’s collective mind for a while. Steampunk Tourist talks about why this subculture is a better fit with disability than others:

When it comes to Steampunk […] one isn’t restricted to that sort of rigid rule set. Rather than being a predetermined cast of characters, Steampunk is an artistic style. While it can stand alone, it can also be added to other things to make them Steampunk. You don’t have to be someone else; you can create your own character. What that means to a person with a physical disability who relies on a device is that their device – be it a wheelchair, cane, oxygen tank, leg braces, or even glasses – can be dressed up and blended into a costume, or even made the centerpiece of it. […] Within the world of Steampunk, those things don’t make them stand out as “others”; they’re merely smart, fashionable accessories. And one can easily imagine that were someone brave enough to dress up a prosthetic limb with Steampunk flare, they would most likely find themselves the belle of the ball at any event, and for all the right reasons.

The Steampunk Professor Xavier Wheelchair by Daniel Valdez
The Steampunk Professor Xavier Wheelchair by Daniel Valdez

Talking about a peg-legged character in one of her steampunk novels, Rebecca Diem likewise writes:

Steampunk literature is a disruption of the historical narrative. When I’m creating a universe for my characters, I treat history like the icing on the cake. Or, sometimes, the rosettes. I am creating a world with airships, sky pirates, auto-baubles and appropriated Victorian aesthetics. I pick and choose which parts I borrow from our history and which parts to embellish.

[…]

So, in a steampunk setting, what does accessibility look like?

In the Tales of the Captain Duke, Professor Sewell is the morally-ambiguous Tony Stark figure. She becomes one of the first students at Lovelace University, a school founded by Mary Somerville and funded by the heirs of Ada Lovelace. She pioneers the field of biomechanical engineering with her incredible prosthetics and reshapes the Victorian understanding of disability. The classic image of the crippled, impoverished veteran pushing himself on a scooter is undone, reshaped into a foreman supervising work at a factory on eight-foot legs.  The Professor disrupts society with her inventions, and challenges her peers’ understanding of the possible.

Do you have an example of how steampunk approaches disability? I would love to hear about it!

 

Is Star Wars a Boys’ Club?

© Andrew Burton/Getty
© Andrew Burton/Getty

I have a special request for all my fellow Star Wars fans – but especially the ones who remember when it all started.

I’ve got a couple of questions about the fandom and marketing that, as much as I already know, I’m just not up to speed on. It’s partly for a work project (more info below), but also just out of interest.

  1. Do you remember reading anything that described Star Wars as a boys’ club – or, on the flip side, recall seeing an appeal to female audiences either in storytelling or in marketing?
  2. If you’re a female fan, what first drew you to Star Wars?
  3. What kinds characters, stories, or merchandise has the franchise marketed with a clear idea of men/boys or women/girls in mind?
  4. What are some of the ways (good, bad, and hilarious) in which Star Wars has tried to appeal to women/girls?
  5. What kinds of things have been perceived as gender-pandering, by fans or by the media?

yteorhfI’m especially interested in concrete examples from before the prequels, but would welcome anything you can send my way. Films, toys, EU, Happy Meal tie-ins. The more specific, the better.

I’m too young (1987) and too foreign (grew up on US military bases) to remember examples from 1977-1990, and I’ve probably missed out on some recent ones as well. The information available online about Star Wars marketing and mythmaking is pretty sparse before 1995 – no surprise, given that the internet wasn’t really a big thing until then – and there’s no way I can afford all the paper fanzines, adverts, articles, and reports I would ideally like for this project.

Here’s a list of some topics I’m already looking at [updated 13 November 2016]:

  • Princess Leia action figures (OT era)
  • Covergirl’s TFA make-up line
  • Responses to the casting of Liam Neeson and Ewan McGregor in TPM
  • OT early screening invitees
  • Female employees at Lucasfilm and LucasArts
  • Wear Star Wars Share Star Wars
  • Dathomir and the Nightsisters (in The Courtship of Princess Leia and The Clone Wars)
  • The ‘Tales from’ EU anthologies (Jabba’s Palace, Mos Eisley Cantina, etc)
  • R2-KT
  • Marcia Lucas
  • Leigh Brackett
  • Kathleen Kennedy
  • Comparisons between Leia and Padmé
  • Characters explicitly used as young adult role models (Ahsoka Tano, Sabeen Wren, Tenel Ka, Jaina Solo, etc.)
  • The #WheresRey campaign
  • Discussions about BB-8’s gender
  • HerUniverse.com

I would hugely, hugely appreciate any info you can give me. Tips for where to look or who else to ask are also very welcome.

You can get in touch with questions or suggestions on Twitter (@MegenJM), via e-mail (DeBruinMJ@cf.ac.uk), or just by commenting on this post.

May the Force be with you!

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A little background info / disclaimer

I’ve been a Star Wars fan since 1994, and have been hanging around TFN since 2001. I even penned and beta-read some fanfic on the TFN forums, though I can’t for the life of me remember my original login password. Now I’m a teacher and academic researching popular culture (more here: www.frankenfiction.com). Although my fandom is a huge part of who I am, and why I ended up doing this kind of work in the first place, I haven’t had the chance to write about or research Star Wars – until now. 

I’ve just been chosen to write a chapter for the upcoming book Star Wars and the History of Transmedia Storytelling. It’s scheduled for publication in 2017, to celebrate the 40th anniversary of ANH. The point of this book is to argue that Star Wars ‘laid the foundations for the forms of convergence culture that rule the media industries today […] spreading that storyworld across as many media platforms as possible’.

My chapter will argue that even though the news media tends to pitch Star Wars as a boys’ club, it actually did a remarkable job of inspiring female fans from the very beginning. Rey has gotten a lot of attention lately, but she’s only the latest in a long list of reasons a woman might want to watch Star Wars. Even aside from Princess Leia, there have been lots of ways the franchise has gone out of its way to try and appeal to women, and even though some of its early attempts fell flat or flew under the radar, it helped to pioneer a lot of the storytelling and marketing strategies that have taken over twenty-first-century culture.

I will obviously ask for your permission before I even think of using anything you say in the book, so feel free to speak your mind. I’m mainly interested in whether other people’s experiences overlap with mine.

If you’re looking for more of a technical explanation of what the chapter is about, you can check out my other blog post on it: http://frankenfiction.com/feminist-politics-star-wars/.

The Feminist Politics of Star Wars

This week started off with some exciting news: I get to draft a chapter for Star Wars and the History of Transmedia Storytelling, a collection of academic essays on the franchise edited by Dan Hassler-Forest and Sean Guynes. This collection is scheduled for publication in 2017, to coincide with the 40th anniversary of the first film release.

every-jedi-ever-a-video-timeline

 

The Project

In forty years a lot has changed for Star Wars, and my chapter focuses on the franchise’s feminist politics.

A recent YouTube video cut together all the lines spoken by women in the original Star Wars film trilogy, apart from Princess Leia. The total runtime was just over a minute. Women have been well represented among the ranks of Lucasfilm and LucasArts, but historically the franchise is not known for its groundbreaking portrayal of female characters on-screen. Even so, women have made up a significant and vocal portion of the franchise’s fanbase from early on. Though Princess Leia’s example is a powerful one, what else draws women to Star Wars, and how has the franchise adapted itself to tap into this market?

rendering-r2kt
R2-KT, the pink astromech droid. First created for a little girl with cancer, later honoured with a place in Star Wars canon – to the chagrin of some uninformed fans.

As you can read in the original call for papers, the focus of the collection is on transmedia revision both in and outside of the films:

The chapters in this collection will ultimately demonstrate that Star Wars laid the foundations for the forms of convergence culture that rule the media industries today. As a commercial entertainment property and meaningful platform for audience participation, Star Wars created lifelong fans (and consumers) by continuing to develop characters and plots beyond the original text and by spreading that storyworld across as many media platforms as possible.

Ashley Eckstein, the voice of Ahsoka Tano and founder of HerUniverse.
Ashley Eckstein: Star Wars fan, voice of Ahsoka Tano, and founder of the clothing line HerUniverse.

From the myriad female-led stories in the Star Wars ‘Legends’ (Expanded Universe) novels, to the casting of stars Ewan McGregor and Liam Neeson in The Phantom Menace, to the popular success of female characters like Ahsoka Tano in The Clone Wars and Rey in The Force Awakens, the first half of my chapter will provide a survey of the tactics used to quietly cater to an imagined female audience, from the earliest days of Star Wars’ transmedia empire. This is a complex subject, and I won’t be able to cover everything in the 5,000 words I’m allotted, but I’ll be doing my best to highlight key examples.

'Encounter on Dathomir' © wraithdt on DeviantArt
‘Encounter on Dathomir’ © wraithdt on DeviantArt

In the second part of the chapter, I plan to tie things together by using the matriarchal planet of Dathomir – first depicted in the bonkers (and bestselling) ‘Legends’ novel The Courtship of Princess Leia (1994) and later re-imagined for the canonical Clone Wars animated series (2008-2014) – as an illustration of the franchise’s own evolving relationship with feminist discourse.

How You Can Help

While I have the wealth of the internet and my own experiences to draw on, as well as the invaluable research of people like Michael Kaminski, J.W. Rinzler, and Will Brooker, ideally I want to take this research further. The information available online about Star Wars‘ marketing and mythmaking is pretty sparse before 1995 – no surprise, given that the internet wasn’t really a big thing until then – and there’s no way I can buy up all the paper fanzines, adverts, articles, and reports I would like for this project on a PhD student’s salary.

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So. Here’s where you come in. Do you remember reading anything that described Star Wars as a boys’ club, or recall seeing an appeal to female audiences either in storytelling or in marketing? What kinds characters, stories, or merchandise has the franchise marketed with a clear idea of ‘men’ or ‘women’ in mind? What are some of the ways (good, bad, and hilarious) in which the Star Wars franchise has tried to appeal to women over the years? What kinds of things have been perceived by the media as gender-pandering?

screen-shot-2015-12-14-at-11-42-24-am

I’m particularly interested in concrete examples from before the prequels (so 1977-1999), and am prioritising officially sanctioned attempts to sell Star Wars to women over grassroots projects, but would welcome anything you can send my way.

Now obviously, on the surface this description seems to ignore all the queer Star Wars fans out there. Please don’t think you’re not also important! Your fandom is a vital part of this research, especially because you’ve long been ignored by marketers. As the previous paragraph states, what I’m looking at here is the perceived audiences for canonical Star Wars products, not the actual ones. I will be on the lookout for slippage between these two groups. I’m also interested in the way the franchise queers itself over time – allowing for multiple readings of the same characters and stories – in order to adjust to changing ideas about gender.